Monday, February 18, 2008

Review of Stephen Wagner's Common Ground Without Compromise: 25 Questions to Create Dialogue on Abortion

In the last five years, there are probably very few people who have spoken about abortion more often with individuals who disagree with him than Stephen Wagner. He often travels with Justice for All exhibits to universities and spends hours listening to and talking with college pro-choice college students about abortion. In Common Ground, Wagner provides 25 questions he believes many prolifers and pro-choicers can find agreement on. His hope is that common ground will allow individuals from opposing sides of the abortion debate to have a more honest and civil discussion with each other.

Wagner begins his book by explaining what he means by common ground and why he thinks finding common ground is important. He writes,
Building common ground is good diplomacy and good manners, especially when we are hoping to persuade someone of something. It shows we are truly interested in seeing how someone else's point of view squares with our own. Changing hearts and minds, after all, begins with understanding hearts and minds.

Wagner then goes into his 25 questions which he has separated in various groupings/chapters like "The Top Six," "Is Abortion Different from Any Other Surgery?," and "What Is the Best Solution to the Problem of Unwanted Children?" Each chapter begins with an introduction and ends with tips to creating a conversation. Each question segment begins with "take your pulse" table where you can compare your feelings on the question to what you think most people believe and has reflection questions. Throughout, Wagner shares stories of his successes and failures at finding common ground. He also provides questions for prolifers to thoughtfully consider.

Wagner concludes that the mess we're in with abortion is that we aren't really talking about it. While we may see television pundits arguing about it all the time, abortion is seldom a conversation topic among friends, families and acquaintances. The answer to this mess is starting civilized, well-informed dialogues by asking questions in a non-abrasive way and listening to the responses.

While reading his book, I was often brought back to an abortion discussion between myself and some of my friends a few years back. Instead of having a thoughtful discussion, the conversation quickly devolved into one of those arguments where one of my female friends claimed I couldn't say anything about abortion because I was a man. Instead of trying to find common ground and move on from there, I was probably much too focused on pointing out the logical flaws in her argument instead of finding points of agreement and building our conversation from mutual agreement.

I think Wagner's book is exceptional resource for, and I would certainly suggest it to, individuals who are interesting in changing hearts and minds on abortion through conversation. We can't all be professional debaters but each of us can use the advice and questions Wagner provides to create thoughtful conversations. Unfortunately, many of these kinds of conversations never occur because we often spend all our time on our differences and no time finding places where we agree. This constant disagreement, especially on issues like abortion, can tend to drive people away from conversations with individuals with differing viewpoints.

Small complaint: I personally found the placement of reflection questions to be somewhat bothersome. They appeared on the side and often they weren't near the end of the segment. I'm guessing this was done for aesthetic and design reasons but I found myself reading the reflection questions mid-paragraph and losing the main text's train of thought when I did. I would have preferred the questions to be at the end of each segment.

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